The Bob Dylan Torture Test
Four people born in the 1990s who'd never listened to Bob Dylan before listen to nothing but Bob Dylan—specifically, his career-spanning, three-disc Biograph—for 72 hours straight. Here’s what it was like for them.
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My 72-hour introduction to Bob Dylan was punishing. I listened over a couple days of 14-hour shifts at Seafair, setting up and taking down tents and stages. It was grueling, monotonous work that involved hauling hundreds of tables and chairs and packing away pieces of Astroturf soaked by rainwater and Coors Light.
Exhausted, dirty, and usually listening in a depressive atmosphere of public buses or shitty trucks, the listening was a trial. I was in no state for musical exploration. I felt lost in songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" that left me wondering what was musical gibberish and what simply went unappreciated because of a lack of historical context. Who was Johnny in the basement? What medicine was he cooking? And this soot-faced Maggie? Was she some renowned '60s chimney sweep?
Only in rare moments did I savor, almost masochistically, the music, wallowing in Dylan's grating melancholic voice and abandoning any attempt at understanding. Those rare moments tended to come while relaxing at home: frying potatoes for dinner with rain falling, listening to "Percy's Song" for the second time, enveloped by its sense of weariness and powerlessness.
I didn't linger a moment past 72 hours, reentering the wide musical world with Raekwon's refreshingly superficial "House of Flying Daggers." A Dylan marathon is a draining thing, and I was not grateful to be engrossed in fairly complicated lyrics when hungering for the visceral emotional relief music can provide.
RELEVANCE TO MY LIFE: 2
Bob Dylan captured a period of political turmoil in the United States, when the country was embroiled in an apparently unwinnable war in a foreign country. But really, any connection I tried to draw to my life and today's world—hey, we're spending lots of money on warplanes now, too!—felt superficial and forced.
THE QUALITY OF HIS VOICE: 10
Why is it that when a voice grates in a certain way (think Lil Wayne or Leonard Cohen), it suddenly becomes the absolutely best thing to listen to?
DEGREE TO WHICH MY PARENTS THINK HE'S IMPORTANT: 8
My dad said he has three CDs that he still listens to these days. One of them is The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. My mom called herself a great admirer of Bob Dylan and even went to one of his concerts "or maybe two," she said. "But definitely at least one." I can tell those were good times.
DEGREE TO WHICH I THINK HE'S IMPORTANT: 3
I think I'm being pretty generous to the guy. He's got some great songs, but these days, whatever he's doing, not very many people seem to be hearing about it.
Listening solely to Bob Dylan over the course of three 90-degree days while packing for college is something like being in solitary confinement next door to a rambling lunatic with a guitar. Some of the strumming is painful, some achieves sentiment, and SOME comes close to sounding like music. In the sweaty confines of my bedroom, disc one of Biograph was, bluntly, torture.
I imagine that the majority of Bobby D's songs hit home only if you're around a campfire in North Dakota at three in the morning. Or when you're stoned. Hearing endless harmonica and stream-of-consciousness cacophonies is like having restless legs syndrome in your brain. This annoyance coupled with my own inability to pack resulted in utter frustration. However, by day three, now lackadaisical and coming to terms with moving across the country, I inexplicably started to dig it. For a few twilight hours of apathy, tunes like "I Want You" sounded good. But come morning, love was fleeting and his ambling lilt was just funny ("Your dancing child with his Chinese SUITTTT/He spoke to me, I took his FLUTEEEE"). My journey with this dude went from pure loathing to convulsions of laughter, with brief affection sandwiched in between.
RELEVANCE TO MY LIFE: 4
Some songs about war, change, and love can transcend generations, but unlike work by other paragons of the '60s like Janis Joplin and John Lennon, Dylan is too indulgent. His lack of variation (congratulations, you can play the harmonica!) doesn't inspire me to keep listening. But you've got to hand it to him for enduring when his work clearly lacks the substance of other hippie-era musicians.
THE QUALITY OF HIS VOICE: 3
Dylan is a storyteller, not a musician, and this is as evident in his lack of vocal strength as in his aversion to basic composing techniques. He musters flat wails and whispers with casual effort. On his more unassuming and stripped-down tracks, dude can handle a tune, but the midrange in which most of his songs rest is strained and erratic. His stylings can grow on you, but only if you accept his abilities for what they are.
DEGREE TO WHICH MY PARENTS THINK HE'S IMPORTANT: 2
When asked her opinion, my mom shrugged and said, "I could roll any which way with Bob Dylan." Ah, sweet apathy. "In terms of people I wanted you to know, like the Beatles and Barbra Streisand... let's just say he wasn't on the list." Whodathunk, my mom has good taste. Granted, she hasn't listened to much of his work—only the New Morning album, and only because "the cover picture looked like my brother."
DEGREE TO WHICH I THINK HE'S IMPORTANT: 4
The majority of Bob Dylan's songs remind me of a run-on sentence by Jack Kerouac set to music. There is something compelling about the fame he's achieved, given his apparent free-falling style where song structure is an afterthought and it's nearly impossible to find a strain that will stick in your head overnight. I don't know that he deserves celebrity based on his discography. It seems that his reputation rests on Bob Dylan the anomaly more than on Bob Dylan the musical artist. He's not golden. He's just another singer-songwriter.
Seventy-two hours of straight-up Bob Dylan. Complete and total immersion into the oeuvre of an artist revered by musicologists, professionals, and amateurs alike. An artist I was only familiar with by name and association. I really didn't know what to expect, but an open mind is what this little experiment called for, and boy let me tell you, that's exactly what I gave it.
By the end of day one, I didn't hate it. It's multifaceted. Dylan's songs fluctuate from short and twangy with a bit of that sweet harmonica to layered and bluesy with super-clean electric-guitar riffs—from simple-yet-profound to convoluted-yet-captivating.
By day two, after going through the three-disc set at least twice, I caught myself singing along with "Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" and "Like a Rolling Stone," changing my Facebook status accordingly.
Day three brought about some deeper analysis and reflection. Do I like Bob Dylan's music because I somehow owe it to him, as being some sort of revolutionary singer-songwriter? Or do I genuinely dig it for reasons less shallow?
I'm into it. For real, though.
I took a late-night Rollerblade excursion around Green Lake ("Just Like a Woman" played while I looked at an awesome view of the lake and the moon), went to the sunny Ballard Locks, drove around, read, took naps, showered, researched, and socialized to Bob Dylan. I gotta say, he's a good fit for all sorts of circumstances.
Though I thought he was a novelty to begin with, and I still do, Dylan is a talented dude. You can tell from the fiftysomething songs on his three-disc set, he's got a knack for writing catchy tunes. And I'm all about catchy tunes.
RELEVANCE TO MY LIFE: 3
Not very relevant. Like I said, he has catchy tunes, but they don't really relate to my life. More often than not, I wasn't even listening to the lyrics, just the melody and the instruments.
THE QUALITY OF HIS VOICE: 9
Oh, I'm a big fan. I love the way he manipulates his voice to give him that bluesy, beatnik vibe. It's as if that voice and that presence is Bob Dylan, while the behind-the-scenes self is more like Robert Zimmerman. A mask, if you will. He sounded a bit like Robin Williams doing an impression in "I Want You." Just putting that out there.
DEGREE TO WHICH MY PARENTS THINK HE'S IMPORTANT: 0
My parents have about as much experience with Bob Dylan as I did before this project, if not less. You know, being foreign and all. They're from Karachi, Pakistan, where I was born.
DEGREE TO WHICH I THINK HE'S IMPORTANT: 6.5
I think he's super-talented, and there's really no doubt about that. He's an artist, and luckily for him, he is recognized for it and appreciated for it. I think that his name will go down in history, because it already has, but that doesn't mean I think he's supremely important.
When I first began my journey into Bob Dylan's subconscious, I was afraid. Many people had told me that what awaited me was some of the most brilliant songwriting of our generation. As I put the first disc of Biograph into my CD player, I expected to adore and revere this man upon the first note of his voice or wail of his guitar. Instead, I experienced utter confusion.
What came out of the speakers was what appeared to be a middle-aged man who wailed and moaned like a witch on steroids, while trying to ramble on about something or other that happened to his wife or friend or someone. Nothing about his work impressed me; his guitar playing was oddly timed and played, his vocals were extremely lacking, and he used the harmonica like rock bands used the cowbell in the '80s. The songs that I liked (at least in comparison to the others) were all the songs that other bands, including Jimi Hendrix, later covered and which in my opinion sound much better than the originals. Even his rhyme schemes and lyrics can be underwhelming after he uses the same base structure for lines multiple times in 10 seconds.
Despite all this, I can at least understand where some people's love for this man's career comes from. During the entire time that I listened, I couldn't help but imagine an old frontier man riding on a wagon train, singing and playing just to pass the time, all the while complaining about his journey west. He wears a cowboy hat and overalls, constantly accompanied by a troupe of young boys who play harmonicas and giggle in glee at every word made by Dylan. It's these boys who eventually grow up and spread their love of the old kindly man who sang them songs. As a result, this man experiences untold popularity after a few years and never stops his songwriting, ever. And all the while, he insists that the sun is not yellow, it's chicken.
RELEVANCE TO MY LIFE: 5
I can only relate to his more popular hits and a few odd songs that I personally felt a connection to. Those songs were "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Masters of War," "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." I like the structure and chorus on "Mr. Tambourine Man," the overall mood on "Masters of War," and the subject matter and pure sorrow in "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is just overall a good song and probably his best mainstream hit based off of what was on this compilation. Problem is, then I hear songs like "Million Dollar Bash" and I want to bash my head in.
THE QUALITY OF HIS VOICE: 2
There were times listening to this compilation that I thought he sang well, and there were other times when I cringed a little. Dylan's voice can never surpass his whiny, moaning, complaining tone that he has made for himself. He is by no means a great vocalist or even a competent one, but he is able to tell stories.
DEGREE TO WHICH MY PARENTS THINK HE'S IMPORTANT: 3
My parents do not believe him to be the troubadour of their generation, because they are only 39. Neither of them likes the vocal style very much or necessarily his music, but they can appreciate and respect him because of his influence on the music they grew up with. Both agreed that covers of Bob Dylan songs are generally better than his originals.
DEGREE TO WHICH I THINK HE'S IMPORTANT: 7
I personally think that Bob Dylan's presence and influence in music will be felt for a long time to come. He popularized the idea that singers do not have to be talented in the traditional sense in order to be appreciated. Considering that Bob Dylan has been around since the 1960s, I believe it's safe to say his music has some staying power with the population. But do I wish for his music to remain? I can't say that I really care. I am of the opinion that even though he did so much, we need to move on.